When the COVID-19 crisis struck in Europe at the beginning of 2020 I spent the lockdown working remotely in Spain. As a teacher, I was lucky enough to be able to keep my job and I continued to work online until the end of the academic year in June. Unfortunately, my Summer School was cancelled and I was faced with the prospect of spending the next three months living with my mother in a lazy town in Northern Italy. Summer jobs were difficult to come by and having saved some money during the lockdown I decided to try and volunteer for the first time in Greece.
Volunteering during a pandemic wasn’t going to be, of course, straightforward: policies all over Europe on how to deal with this seemed to be in a constant state of flux, with different decisions being made by different countries from one day to the other. Add to this that regulations for charities working in Greece were also changing, with new demands being made and, of course, more bureaucracy. Through RefugeeEd I was quickly matched with a charity working in the camp at Skaramagas and I was beyond excited.
Before even getting to Greece though I had to fill in a few forms in advance to be even let into the country but the procedure was easy and straightforward enough. The flight to Athens was good, with all the usual Covid precautions, and once we landed we were greeted in Athens by the military who directed us in different areas of the airport to get tested. The whole process didn’t take long: being one of the first to get off the plane, I queued for about ten minutes. The doctors swabbed my throat and I was told that in case of positive result, I would be notified within 24 hours, otherwise it meant that the result was negative.
The next day I got no notification so I was free to go. While the Covid rules for working at the camp changed through the weeks, depending on the state of alert, they were simple and easy to follow: obviously all international volunteers needed to sign in and out, then have their temperature taken. We had to wear a mask at all times, disinfect surfaces often and regularly clean our hands.
As a teacher, during my first week, we started testing the camp residents to try and get an idea of how many classes we could run and at which level. The charity had stopped running English classes for months because of the pandemic and the residents were absolutely enthusiastic that classes would be offered again.
Teaching in a refugee context was a completely new experience for me and these new procedures didn’t make our job easier. However all the challenges were overcome with a little creativity and bags of enthusiasm on our side and especially from the students. For example I used my iPad to show pictures and elicit language (it was big enough for a class of ten) or asked the students to look up things on their mobile phones. I organised the desks so that even distant, the students could see each other and interact.
Volunteering during Covid required all of us to ‘think outside the box’ with all the activities we organised. It also required us be even more careful and more flexible. Of the 4 weeks I spent in Skaramagas, a few days here and there were spent at home. While we all welcomed the break: it was a real shame having to stop especially when the students had started doing some progress.
Nonetheless, no amount of frustration will ever change the amazing experience I’ve had working in Skaramagas, which I truly hope to repeat next year. There are many reasons why I decided to take this opportunity, some professional, mostly personal. I have met some incredible people (both camp residents and other international volunteers) and I’ve truly never had students so eager to learn. Teaching here allowed me to really go back to basics and tailor everything that I was doing to my students’ needs, without the pressure of strict curricula and standardisation.
As teachers, it can be difficult at times to remember why we got into the profession at all: we are often buried in paperwork and pulled from all sides by the demands of managers, inspectors, students and parents. I would encourage anyone, but especially teachers, to try and volunteer here at least once: on a human level, you’ll cherish the warmth you’ll receive from your students; professionally, you’ll gain invaluable skills. It will boost your creativity in planning and in the use of resources and you’ll learn to communicate in ways you didn’t think were possible. Ultimately, you will reassess your role as an educator and you will see how important your job is in a wider context.
Alice - Volunteer with Refugee Ed
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